Literary festivals are a little like football clubs: just about every single town has one, and when it comes to attracting performers, geographical location provides a decisive and unfair advantage. Football clubs can compensate by chucking money at the problem, which is why Brazilians end up playing in some of our less attractive industrial cities, when they could have gone to Spain or Portugal, but there is no money in literary festivals so it really is all about where you’re at. Parati, in Brazil, doesn’t seem to have had too much trouble reeling in authors; ditto Mantova and Reykjavik. When I was invited to speak at a festival in Gavoi, a small town in the middle of Sardinia, earlier this month, I found that, for reasons I probably don’t have to explain, I wasn’t as busy as I’d thought.
I probably don’t need to explain how much fun it was, either. It was hot, and the food was good, and the people were nice, and the hotel had a great pool, and I’ll shut up now, before you start thinking that a writer’s life isn’t, after all, filled with despair and difficulty. Weirdly, one of the most memorable parts of the weekend was having my picture taken, usually a terrible waste of time even if you’re George Clooney. Every year in Gavoi a local photographer takes a portrait picture of all the writers appearing at the festival; the following year, the portraits are displayed on walls around the town, and if you happen to own one of these walls, then you are the curator of the portrait – you put it up and take it down each day, keep it clean, maybe even feed it and water it. It’s one of the many ways in which the people of Gavoi are invited to feel a part of the activities. The photos are all taken indoors, and so the photographer looks at you and then decides where she would like to shoot you; in my case, she decided that she would use the cool, clean and admirably uncluttered house of an elderly lady in the centre of the town. (Don’t ask me why, but it’s almost certainly something to do with me being bald. It usually is, when it comes to photographs.) When we got there, the elderly lady had gathered various friends and family members for the occasion, and my wife and I were served delicious meringues, a local delicacy, and I talked to a rabid Juve fan about Patrick Vieira; it certainly beat being made to feel like a twerp for thirty minutes in a hotel lobby, which is what normally happens with photoshoots. It’s not right, though, only going to festivals in nice places. I feel I should do some kind of penance. If you live somewhere irredeemably unattractive, and you’re trying to put on a festival, please invite me, and I’ll come. I wonder if anyone will own up to how they feel about where they live….